Not open government

February 5, 2011 | By | 5 Replies More

I decided to see how hard it would be to determine what information Homeland Security has gathered about me.  I went to the Homeland Security Website and wrote an email to Homeland Security (foia@dhs.gov). Here is my email request:

January 23, 2011

Catherine M. Papoi
Deputy Chief FOIA Officer
Director, Disclosure & FOIA
The Privacy Office
245 Murray Drive, S.W.
STOP-0550
Washington, DC 20528-0550

FOIA REQUEST

Dear FOIA Officer:

Pursuant to the federal Freedom of Information Act, 5 U.S.C. § 552, I request access to and copies of All records dated on or after January 1, 2006 concerning “Erich Vincent Vieth” in your possession.

I would like to receive the information in electronic format. (CD-ROM.)

I agree to pay reasonable duplication fees for the processing of this request in an amount not to exceed $150. However, please notify me prior to your incurring any expenses in excess of that amount.

If my request is denied in whole or part, I ask that you justify all deletions by reference to specific exemptions of the act. I will also expect you to release all segregable portions of otherwise exempt material. I, of course, reserve the right to appeal your decision to withhold any information or to deny a waiver of fees.

As I am making this request as an author and this information is of timely value, I would appreciate your communicating with me by telephone, rather than by mail, if you have questions regarding this request.

I look forward to your reply within 20 business days, as the statute requires.

Image by Ssuaphoto at dreamstime (with permission)

Thank you for your assistance.

Sincerely,

Erich Vieth

Now all I needed to do was sit back and wait for the federal government to disclose to me all of my emails that they’ve been reading and all of my phone calls that they’ve been listening to. We’ll, actually, instead of getting information, I got a major league dose of bureaucratese. Here’s the paper letter I received instead of real information. I’ve interspersed comments below in red and in brackets:

February 1, 2011

Mr. Erich Vieth
4035 Flora Place
st. Louis, MO 63110

Re: DHS/OSIPRIV [xx-xxxx]

Dear Mr. Veith

[Hmmm. They can’t seem to spell. This is the sort of problem that could allow a real terrorist to escape detection].

This acknowledges receipt of your January 23, 2011Freedom of Information Act Privacy Act (FOIA/PA) request to the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), in which you seek access to and copies of all records dated on or after January 1,2006 concerning” Erich Vieth” (full name “Erich Vincent Veith”) in the possession of the Department of Homeland. Your request was received in this office on January 24, 2011.

[Check out the pathetic spelling again. Both “Vieth” and “Veith” in the same letter, twice. This gives me no confidence that they would actually run any sort of competent search for information about me, even if they tried. I requested information because I have repeatedly written harshly critical statements about the federal government at Dangerous Intersection since I founded the website in March 2006. I have also written some favorable comments regarding Wikileaks. In short, I have been actively exercising my First Amendment rights, and I was curious as to whether Homeland Security was collecting any sort of file on me. Fair enough? I thought that this sort of inquiry is why Congress Passed the Freedom of Information Act. In fact, I’m certain of this.]

An individual’s request for information pertaining to him/her is processed under both the FOIA and the PA to afford maximum access to records. [I really don’t give a shit how you gather my records. I simply want you to gather them and send them to me.] Because you have asked for copies of records about yourself, we must verify your identity to ensure that your personal information is not released to anyone other than you. The DHS regulations, 6 CFR Part 5 § 5.21(d), require verification of your identity, including your full name, current address and date and place of birth. [You guys don’t know this information? That’s not very impressive for “Homeland Security]. In addition, your request must be made in writing, must contain your signature, and should either be notarized or contain a statement made under penalty of perjury as permitted by 28 U.S.C. 1746. [Interesting, that they are trying to get up my hopes that they will actually take my request seriously if I send an affidavit or substitute attestation.] Because you have not provided this documentation, your request is not a proper FOIA/PA request, and we are unable to initiate searching for responsive records. [I was not asked to provide any of these things at the FOIA website. This is quite impressive, bureaucratically speaking. By the way, I followed a simple form request–advocacy groups suggest sample letters much like the one I used; I think I used this letter generator.  But maybe I should have read this 76-page document to find out how to make a more proper request. And I maybe should also have read this 42-page document discussing the fees that would be charged to me regarding my FOIA request].

Furthermore, DHS does not maintain a central index of records about individuals. For this reason, § 5.21(b) of the DHS Privacy Act regulations, 6 C.F.R. Part 5, require that you describe the records you are seeking with as much information as possible to ensure that our search of appropriate systems of records can find them with a reasonable amount of effort. [Then how in the hell do YOU GUYS ever find any relevant information on anyone? I’m surprised that you don’t have an record-keeping system that would allow you to find things quickly.  Or do you ask the criminals to help you find record on them too?] In addition to the information that you provided, this description should include, the type of record you are seeking, the DHS component you believe created and/or controls the records, the precipitating event that you believe warranted the creation of records and the time period that you believe the records or files were created and compiled.  [The is cute.  You want me to tell you things I obviously don’t know.  And you apparently want me to confess to a crime here in order to get my records (“the precipitating event”).  This is not in the spirit of the Act, which provides that Anyone, anywhere, for any reason can request information from the government under FOIA. ]

If we do not receive your revised request within 30 business days from the date of this letter, we will assume that you no longer require the information requested, and your request will be administratively closed. [I would suggest that you consider, instead, that I have better things to do than having you guys pretend to look through your files for information on me].

This is not a denial of your request. [Interesting that they felt the need to say this.  Maybe it could have been worded like this, though:  “We crank out these form letters while we drink coffee and laugh our asses off at people like you, while also chatting about the secret wars we are fighting in Yemen and Pakistan.]. Upon receipt of a perfected request, you will be advised as to the status of your request.  [That means that they have lots of other form letters with lots of other reasons for refusing to honor these requests. No thanks.  This was an enlightening experiment, but I can already see that you will be entirely unmotivated to actually look for information about me, even if I jump through your hoops.  I sat through a class on FOIA requests, and I know that this is the first hurdle of many more to come, and that litigation is often necessary to make you guys minimally comply with the law.]

If you have any questions or would like to discuss this matter, please feel free to contact this office at telephone number, 866-431-0486, or 703-235-0790 and refer to DHS/OSIPRIV [xx-xxxx].

Here’s the potential irony. I probably put myself on a Homeland Security “special watch” list by making my request for information.

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Category: Orwellian, Politics, Privacy, Secrecy

About the Author ()

Erich Vieth is an attorney focusing on consumer law litigation and appellate practice. He is also a working musician and a writer, having founded Dangerous Intersection in 2006. Erich lives in the Shaw Neighborhood of St. Louis, Missouri, where he lives half-time with his two extraordinary daughters.

Comments (5)

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  1. Ask for all information related to your letter. Every month. Turn it into your own form letter. Six bucks a year for your own PA EVV Wiki. Watch the dossier grow. Watch it reach out to other documents. Soon, when your man-swimming-in-very-cold-water SSI benefits mature, you will be able to add SOB to the acronyms by which Uncle Scam knows ewe.

  2. Brynn Jacobs says:

    Erich-

    I thought of your experiment as I read this interview with a former FBI agent-turned-ACLU attorney:

    Q: What is the most disturbing fact(s) that you have uncovered?

    German: The most disturbing thing we've uncovered is the scope of domestic intelligence activities taking place today. Domestic spying is now being done by a host of federal agencies (FBI, DOD, DHS, DNI) as well as state and local law enforcement and even private companies. Too often this spying targets political activity and religious practices. We've documented intelligence activities targeting or obstructing First Amendment-protected activity in 33 states and DC.

    Q: Is there a clear-cut list of what places people on watchlists or makes them suspicious?

    German: No. The FBI claims it needs only a reasonable suspicion to place people on watchlists, but there's significant evidence (including IG reports) documenting that people are improperly placed on watchlists for improper reasons.

    Q: Can people get off of a watchlist?

    German: The FBI won't even confirm if you are on a watchlist. Many times when we bring suits challenging a person's suspected placement on a watchlist, it results in the travel problems being resolved, without explanation.

  3. Pat says:

    I sent a FOIA request to HUD using their online form. I asked for information regarding a FHA Mortgagee.

    5 weeks later, they sent me a similar letter as you received saying I was “asking for information about myself.” What the h***? Since when did I become a FHA Mortgagee.

    Every day, it becomes more evident that our Government is run by a bunch of morons at all levels. AND, they think the public is a bigger form of moron. How anyone at HUD could send me that stupid letter is beyond me. It was clear as the sun that I was not asking for any information that had anything to do with “myself.”

  4. NIklaus Pfirsig says:

    Pat and Erich
    I have to call BULLSHIT on the claim the opinion that “our Government is run by a bunch of morons at all levels”.

    I call this bullshit, because it is the result of years of ongoing anti government propaganda pushed by big business. Civil service employees comprise the vast majority of government, a disproportionally higher percentage (when compared to the private sector) of civil servants are college educated, or skilled labor. Becoming a civil servant requires, in addition to proof of educational background and experience, a proficiency exam.

    The morons in government, however are the elected and appointed officials whose only requirement is access to the right people.

    As for the FOIA, requests made for personally identifying information are a touchy subject, as personal information may be used for illegal purposes. E.G. Afew years ago, information obtained legally from a government database was used by an abusive ex-husband to locate his ex-wife, where he then beat her to death.

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